On 19th and 20th September, 150 years ago, the Battle of Chickamauga was fought. The titanic clash resulted in a resounding Confederate victory, sending William Starke Rosecrans’ Federal troops reeling back to Chattanooga. One of the Union regiments engaged during the fight was the 35th Indiana Infantry, otherwise known as the ‘First Irish.’ The 35th lost five men killed and 23 wounded during the engagement. On top of this they also lost 37 ‘captured or missing’. I have researched the personal stories of six of these missing men- revealing the fatal shadow that Chickamauga cast long after September 1863. (1)
Major John Dufficy led the 35th Indiana Infantry onto the field at Chickamauga. Having been involved in some heavy skirmishing on the 18th September, the morning of the 19th found them facing the enemy across Chickamauga Creek near Lee and Gordon’s Mills. The fight started early, at around 8am, but for the first few hours the Irishmen were not seriously engaged. As the day progressed the positions to their left came under severe pressure, and at around 3pm the 35th were ordered to march at the double-quick in line of battle to support their comrades. They were thrown into a desperate fight around the Viniard Farm as they attempted to stem a determined Confederate assault. During the action the first of our six men, Private Thomas Mulcahy of Company A, went down- struck by an enemy bullet. The battle washed over him, and he was taken captive along with many other members of the regiment, particularly men from Company B. For those remaining the struggle continued on into darkness, when the First Irish were instructed to move further to the left, in support of a battery. Their new position exposed them to a vicious crossfire and the men frantically threw up logs and rails in an effort to protect themselves. The position was untenable, and eventually they were forced to withdraw. The long first day’s fight had cost Major Dufficy and the regiment 29 men. (2)
That night brought little rest. With the Rebels expected to launch another assault the next morning (September 20th), the 35th were once again given orders to move. At 2am they changed position, eventually finding themselves towards the extreme left of the Federal line. Before noon they drove some of the rebels back with a charge through a cornfield, but the tide of battle would quickly turn decisively against the Union troops. To the right a Confederate attack launched by James Longstreet met with complete success, driving large parts of Rosecrans’ army pell mell before them. The left of the army was now isolated and the result of the engagement appeared inevitable. Heavily engaged from around 4pm onwards, the 35th Indiana and those around them were eventually ordered to retreat. With Confederates closing in from seemingly every direction, the withdrawal was in danger of descending into a rout. Eventually the regiment got away, and having initially reformed on a nearby hill they followed the general retreat of the army back to Chattanooga. The two days of fighting finally drew to a close. Many of the 35th Indiana now found themselves prisoners, the majority taken on the first day of fighting. Among this number were Sergeant Michael O’Gara, Private Martin Ryan, Private John Sharkey and Private Luke Dignan of Company B and Private Nicholas Mungin of Company D. (2)
Apart from being members of the 35th Indiana Infantry, these six men had something else in common- all would eventually find themselves prisoners at Andersonville, Georgia, the most notorious POW camp of the Civil War. In its 14 months as an operational prison, 13,000 of the 45,000 men who were held there died- the majority as a result of disease, starvation and exposure. (3)
Martin Ryan had plenty of incentive to try to survive the horrors of Andersonville and return home to Indiana. He had married his sweetheart Eleanor in April of 1861, spending only a few months with her before enlisting in the army. Unable to write himself, he had relied on his friend and mess mate in Company B, John Sharkey, to write home to his wife and his parents on his behalf. Clearly many evenings had been spent around the fire as Martin dictated his feelings to John, who recorded them for his family. Now the two friends were prisoners together in the hellish Georgian stockade. Eventually John was paroled, and in November 1864 sent the following letter to Indiana from Annapolis, Maryland:
Annapolis, Md, November 4, 1864
Dear Sir I take the privilege of writing these few lines to you by the request of your son Martin the last time I seen him which was the 15th of May last. Sir Martin was my mess mate ever since we have been in the Army and I wrote all his letters for him. Well Sir he entrusted all of his business to me and when he took sick he told me to do this. He took sick about the first of April and he died the 28th of May. I shall come and see you as quick as possible and let you know the particulars of his death.
No more at present,
From a friend of your son,
Co. B 35 Ind.
[P.S.] Mr Ryan I am sorry to have to write with such sad news to you and especialy [sic] his wife for I have wrote many a welcome letter to her from him.
John Sharkey had served throughout the war under an alias- his real name was actually John W. Barnes. Aside from the 35th Indiana he had also been in the ranks of the 23rd Illinois Infantry- ‘Mulligan’s Irish Brigade’- and saw later service in the 5th US Infantry. He would outlive his friend Martin by almost 60 years. He passed away in a Soldier’s Home in Illinois on 11th February 1923. (4)
Despite the bullet-wound he had received on 19th September, Thomas Mulcahy managed to survive and at least partially recover. Thomas’s mother Margaret was relying on him- his father had died in Ireland before they had emigrated, and the 67-year-old needed his financial support to get by. Having got through the immediate danger of his wound, Thomas needed the right conditions to rehabilitate. He did not find them at Andersonville. Probably weakened by the injury, he died on 24th July 1864 as a result of chronic diarrhoea. (5)
The capture of Nicholas Mungin at Chickamauga was a disaster for his family, both emotionally and financially. Nicholas lived in Louisville, Kentucky, where since the age of 13 he had found work where he could, usually as a cook on the steam boats plying the Ohio River, or doing odd jobs on the wharf. He had little choice but to work from a young age, as his father had died in 1851, leaving him to support his elderly mother Barbara. They lived in a ‘miserable frame house, illy furnished, and otherwise surrounded by signs of poverty.’ Of his two younger brothers, the elder, Charles was described variously as ‘not of sound mind’ ‘partially idiotic and in very poor health’ and an ‘idiot boy’ who needed constant care. The weight of financial responsibility on Nicholas was clearly huge. In 1861 Nicholas, now 19, had found that the war made work on the Ohio almost impossible to come by. In order to find money he travelled to the Indiana side of the river 60 or 70 miles below Louisville, where he got work on a farm. Not long afterwards he enlisted in the 35th Indiana, undoubtedly seeking a regular wage to help support his family. He consistently sent his pay home, but this stopped after Chickamauga. Nicholas Mungin’s battle to survive Andersonville ended on 27th September 1864- his death as a result of scurvy dooming his mother and younger siblings to a continued struggle with financial penury. (6)
As with Martin Ryan, Company B’s Luke Dignan also had a wife at home- he had been 23 and Ellen 20 when they tied the knot in 1855. They lived in Terre Haute, Indiana, and Luke was to meet many men from that area during his time in Andersonville. One of them was Martin Hogan of the 1st Indiana Cavalry. Hogan had been captured in March 1864 at Stevensville, Virginia during the Dahlgren Raid. In Andersonville the horse-solder served as a hospital steward and got to know Luke Dignan well. Hogan would eventually escape Confederate captivity and return to Indiana. He brought with him a list that he had kept in the camp, which recorded the names of all those who he had witnessed dying. Among the names on it was Luke Dignan, who had died on 6th October 1864 of Dropsy, over a year after his initial capture at Chickamauga. Luke’s wife would follow him into an early grave. She died at the age of just 36 in Providence Hospital, leaving behind no children. She left the remnants of her and Luke’s estate to her brothers children, the Catholic Church, and Providence Hospital which had cared for her. (7)
Andersonville was proving far more deadly to the 35th Indiana than the battle of Chickamauga ever was. Of the six men captured on 19th and 20th September 1863 examined in this post, four of them died there. Apart from John Sharkey the only other to survive was Michael O’Gara, also of Company B. Michael had originally lived in New York, where he married his wife Ann in 1846. They had travelled west to make a better life for themselves, until the Civil War intervened. It is likely that on the morning of 20th September 1863 at Chickamauga Michael’s thoughts turned to home, as the second day of fighting was also his eldest daughter Elizabeth’s tenth birthday. His second daughter Honora (Hannah) had been born on Christmas Day 1856. Despite being one of the older men in the group, Michael was clearly a survivor. Having survived all the war had thrown at him, he must have looked forward to a reunion with his wife and daughters as he boarded the steamer at Vicksburg in April 1865 which would take him to Cairo, Illinois and ultimately his Indiana home. He was one of about 2,300 men, mainly former POWs, crowded aboard the vessel as it made its way up the Mississippi on 24th April. They docked at Memphis on the 26th to take on coal and continued their journey up river around midnight. Then, at 2am on the morning of the 27th April, a repaired boiler on the vessel, the SS Sultana, exploded. The blast set off explosions in two other boilers and a combination of fire and boiling steam swept through the stricken ship. Men were catapulted into the river with tremendous force while others were crushed by the falling smokestacks. Hundreds were trapped below decks, while many of those who jumped into the water had sustained horrific burns. Of the c. 2,700 passengers on board, 1,700 died. Up to 200 more later succumbed to their injuries. The explosion of the SS Sultana remains the worst maritime disaster in United States history. One of those who survived was Stephen M. Gaston of the 9th Indiana Cavalry. He later told Michael O’Gara’s family all he knew:
I was a private in Co. K. 9th Ind. Cav. and was on board the Steamer Sultana, on the Mississippi river, Apl. 27. 1865, when said boat blew up, and was burned. I knew well Michael O’Gara, of Co. B. 35th Ind. who was also on said boat, and was lost at said time. I saw said O’Gara on the evening previous, Apl. 26, I never saw him afterwards. I have not the shadow of a doubt but that he was drowned at said time. (8)
Cruel fate ensured that Michael O’Gara survived the horrors of Chickamauga and Andersonville only to be killed while on the final journey home to his family. His wife Ann never remarried. The widow died 41 years after her husband, on 30th June 1905. As we move towards the 150th anniversary of Chickamauga, it is worth remembering those who survived the initial engagement, but whose death was caused by the battle just as surely as if they had been killed on the field. It is also another opportunity for those in Ireland to remember the many hundreds of Irishmen and their families, fighting for both the North and South, whose lives were altered forever by the colossal clash of arms in north-west Georgia in September 1863. (9)
The six men who are the subject of this post were far from the only men of the 35th Indiana who found themselves in Andersonville as a result of the fighting at Chickamauga. Among the others were:
Private Henry Adams, captured 19th September 1863, Chickamauga, died of diarrhea 23rd September 1864, Andersonville.
Private William Lyons, captured 19th September 1863, Chickamauga, died of scurvy 2nd August 1864, Andersonville.
Private Henry Beal, captured 19th September 1863, Chickamauga, survived Andersonville and Sultana disaster.
Private Michael Callan, captured 19th September 1863, Chickamauga, died of diarrhea 14th October 1864, Andersonville.
Corporal John Cody, captured 19th September 1863, Chickamauga, survived Andersonville.
Sergeant Charles Devlin, captured 19th September 1863, Chickamauga, died of pneumonia 26th July 1864, Andersonville.
Private John Dugan, captured 19th September 1863, Chickamauga, survived Andersonville.
Private Francis Murphy, captured 19th September 1863, Chickamauga, died of scurvy 31st October 1864, Andersonville.
Private James Murphy, captured 19th September 1863, Chickamauga, died of scurvy 13th October 1864, Andersonville.
Private William Combs, captured 20th September 1863, Chickamauga, reported died at Andersonville.
Private Frederick Frakes, captured 19th September 1863, Chickamauga, died of diarrhea 30th May 1864, Andersonville.
Private Daniel McCarty, captured 19th September 1863, Chickamauga, survived Andersonville.
Sergeant Edwin Bolin, captured 20th September 1863, Chickamauga, died of diarrhea 17th August 1864, Andersonville.
Private George W. Bolin, captured 20th September 1863, Chickamauga, survived Andersonville.
Private William R. Jerard, captured 19th September 1863, Chickamauga, died of anascara 6th August 1864, Andersonville.
Private Jacob G. Mason, captured 19th September 1863, Chickamauga, fate unknown.
Private Michael McGuire, captured 19th September 1863, survived Andersonville and Sultana disaster.
Private Patrick Kane, captured 19th September 1863, Chickamauga, survived Andersonville. (10)
(1) OR: 177; (2) OR: 843, Cozzens 1996: 206, 209; OR:844; (3) Andersonville National Park Service Website; (4) Martin Ryan Widow’s Pension File, John Sharkey Pension Index Card; (5) Thomas Mulcahy Widow’s Pension File; (6) Nicholas Mungin Widow’s Pension File; (7) Luke Dignan Widow’s Pension File; (8) Remembering Sultana, Michael O’Gara Widow’s Pension File; (9) Michael O’Gara Widow’s Pension File; (10) Civil War Prisoners
References & Further Reading
Official Records of the War of Rebellion Series 1, Volume 30 (Part 1). Return of the Casualties in the Army of the Cumberland, commanded by Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, at the Battle of Chickamauga, Ga., September 19 and 20, 1863
Official Records of the War of Rebellion Series 1, Volume 30 (Part 1). Report of Maj. John P. Dufficy, Thirty-fifth Indiana Infantry
Luke Dignan Widow’s Pension File WC81790
Thomas Mulcahy Widow’s Pension File WC85796
Nicholas Mungin Widow’s Pension File WC88294
Michael O’Gara Widow’s Pension File WC92746
Martin Ryan Widow’s Pension File WC70303
John Sharkey Pension Index Card Application 182286
Cozzens, Peter 1996. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga